Nurturing Faith Through Music

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Scientists believe that music is one of the oldest human creations. Apart from the millennia-old flutes and harps that have been discovered among archaeological finds, some anthropologists believe that music was a precursor to speech, that humans used music to communicate moods and even specific information long before there were words to express precise ideas. For a people as connected to the text as we Jews are, that’s a powerful notion, theologically affirmed by the sentiments of Psalm 150 encouraging all manner of music-making in order to praise G-d.

Indeed, the Temple in Jerusalem was a place of elaborate performances, with levitical choirs and orchestras accompanying daily rituals, and the addition of extra voices and instruments for special occasions. While the “congregation” took only a limited role in Temple worship (intoning simple responses like “amen” or “Baruch Hu uvaruch shemo” in an era before prayer books and formalized religious education for all), the music of the Temple service communicated sacred sentiment and helped to forge a community of worshipers.

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the rabbis forbade the kind of public ceremony and musical rituals that had previously distinguished Jewish worship, but they were unable to quash the human need to sing. Moreover, as new prayers emerged to take the place of the sacrifices, the rabbis needed a way to teach and disseminate those new rites, and discovered that the intersection of text and music offered the ideal vehicle for stimulating memory and creating emotional connections. Over time, complex musical customs evolved to identify liturgical time: morning and evening services, weekday and Sabbath prayers, Festival and High Holy Day celebrations are all identified through distinctive melodies, collectively referred to as nusach. Though Jews in different geographic regions developed different musical styles (reflective of the culture of the local majority), the idea of an obligatory body of music became universal, and again, helped to create cohesion among religious communities. Ashkenazic Jews expelled from one region after another could nevertheless find comfort in the synagogue, where, despite inevitable local variations, the music was broadly familiar.

Even—perhaps especially—those Jews who do not attend the synagogue with particular frequency are brought “home” each year by the return of familiar melodies associated with the High Holy Day services or the Passover seder. It is music that imprints these traditional memories. At the same time, when contemporary congregations feel that they are lacking a spiritual connection to the service, they reach out for new melodies that will enable communal participation and engagement with the text. From Shlomo Carlebach to Debbie Friedman, modern composers continue to make a mark on the music of worship; for many people, it is through music that they are best able to express their faith. Others who do not consider themselves “ritual” Jews nevertheless feel culturally bound to our people through klezmer music, or the familiar songs they hear at a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah, or even the ditties associated with celebrations of Hanukkah and Purim.

Given the omnipresence and clear import of music in all aspects of our Jewish lives, it behooves us as educators to make music a greater presence in our classrooms. Here are some of the more obvious way we can use music to enhance our teaching, and our students’ learning:

  • Play background music to establish a mood in your classroom (or the entire school, played over the public address system during school opening, dismissal or recess). Choose recordings of songs you have recently taught to accompany the building of craft projects, and you will both reinforce the music and create a quieter environment in the room; or select music you plan to introduce later, and the subliminal exposure to the songs will help prepare your students to learn these new melodies in the future.
  • Explore different musical settings used for the same text. Most of the prayers commonly sung aloud have been adapted multiple times, by composers in varying geographic locations and centuries. How does the “formal” setting of “Ki MiTziyon” sung in most synagogues (written by Salomon Sulzer in the mid-19th century, intended for use only as part of the Festival Torah service, but almost instantly adapted for daily usage) differ from a chasidic tune, or an Israeli melody or a song by a popular North American songwriter? Think of all the ways you know to sing “Hinei mah tov uma na’im.” Which one suits the mood of the text? They all do, just in different ways! Engage your students in exploring the meaning of the words through the mood established by the music. Which one expresses their ideas about the text? Which one would they most like to sing? Which one feels most like a “prayer”?
  • Teach a chasidic nigun and discover the ability of music to transcend the text entirely! The Baal Shem Tov cultivated a radical notion by suggesting that the pure expression of spiritual desire through music might ascend directly to the kisei hakavod (Heavenly Throne) and facilitate communion with the Divine, even if the worshiper is not skilled in “formal” prayer. Chasidic dveikus nigunim are best suited to this sort of spirituality (tish and rikud nigunim are used respectively for singing around the table and dancing) and many decidedly non-chasidic minyanim are using these melodies to begin their services, nurturing a spiritual community without words.
  • Explore the distinctive flavor of Jewish communities around the world through their music. Recent recordings of the Abayudaya Jews of Africa, the Ethiopian Jewish community now in Israel, and Sephardic traditions of Jews from the Balkans to the Caribbean and across the Middle East can engage our students in cross-cultural exploration—and reinforce the textual ties that bind us together, despite our variant musical traditions. Imagine a model Passover seder in which each tune comes from a different Jewish community!

Ideally, each school should employ a specialist whose knowledge of the “literature” (repertoire) can create musical connections to virtually every topic covered in the curriculum, but it is not beyond the capacity of every teacher to create a musically-rich environment in his/her classroom. Many Jewish studies teachers who work with younger students already use songs to help reinforce lessons in Bible, prayer and Hebrew, and music from Israel creates an obvious connection to the country and its language. Some older children do balk at singing the “old-fashioned” or “babyish” songs that are familiar to their teachers, but there is plenty of fresh, new music readily available: Websites like,, offer inexpensive downloads of the latest music from across the spectrum of musical style and religious sentiment; has a wide selection of Israeli music for purchase, and virtually all performers have sites where their entire inventory is readily available. Remember, too, that “singing” is not the only way to appreciate music. Your older students, who may prefer not to sing along, can learn a lot about music by simply listening as you guide a discussion of the text and its meaning.

All human communities produce music, and the Jewish community has a rich and diverse repertoire it can call its own. There are many ways to “be Jewish” in today’s world, but fortunately, there is music that can engage every Jew. The music of our people has nurtured and expressed our faith throughout Jewish history; we can, and should, use it to facilitate the spiritual development of today’s students as well. ?

Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman is Professor Emerita of Music and Education at Gratz College in Melrose Park, PA. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .




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